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Rewind: History of City Council election process

Back in November 1987, the last time the City Council’s election process was changed, then-Journal Star reporter Paul Gordon wrote a very interesting story on the history of the process.

I’ve reprinted the complete article below, but here’s the summary, with some additional information to bring us up to 2011:

Years Election Process
Before 1845 Governed under township system, with a board of trustees and a board president
1845-1953 Mayor and, initially, eight aldermen elected from four wards, with elections held annually. The council grew with the city, and by 1951, there were 11 wards and 22 aldermen.
1953-1960 Council-manager form of government adopted; one mayor and all council members elected at-large.
1960-1972 In a special election, voters decide to reestablish the ward system. Ten wards are established with one councilman elected from each; terms are not staggered. There are no at-large seats.
1972-1991 Under new state legislation, a binding referendum was held that established five districts and three at-large seats (total of 8 council members, plus the mayor), with staggered terms.
1991-present As a result of the 1987 Voting Rights lawsuit settlement, our current system was established with five district councilmen and five at-large councilmen elected via cumulative voting. The first at-large election under the new system was held in 1991.

Now in 2011, there is talk of doing away with the current system and returning to possibly ten districts and no at-large councilmen, which would be essentially what we had in the 1960s. It’s also the resolution originally sought in the voting rights case of 1987.

In 1987, a lawsuit (Joyce Banks, et al. v City of Peoria, case number 87-2371) was filed against the City of Peoria, District 150 Board of Education, and the Peoria Park District, alleging that the method of electing at-large members “prevented minorities from getting elected to the boards because the number of white voters outnumbered minorities.” The suit originally sought to abolish at-large voting completely from all three boards. But in a settlement before the case went to trial, plaintiffs agreed to eliminate at-large voting from the school district and park boards, and develop a different solution for the City Council: a total of five at-large members (an increase from three) plus the implementation of a cumulative voting system.

Why? According to a Nov. 1, 1987, Journal Star article, one of the plaintiffs, Joyce Banks, stated “their original demand for across-the-board district voting was dropped because blacks reasonably could be assured of one seat on a district-only council…. With the agreed-upon changeover to cumulative voting for at-large seats on the City Council, Banks said a well-organized black community could capture two or three seats on what would become a 10-member council.”

That’s more or less how it has worked out. Today, there are two black members on the council: first-district councilman Clyde Gulley and at-large councilman Eric Turner. If the council were to change back to a ten-district system, it’s hard to say how minority representation would change. Minority population has increased over the past 24 years, so presumably more than one district could be made up of a majority of minority voters. Plus, it’s not as if white people only vote for white people or black people only vote for black people. For instance, Turner lives in the fifth district of the City, which is predominantly white, and he received a large number of votes from that area in the last at-large election. There’s no reason he couldn’t continue to win a seat in that area of town even under a district-only process.

It is interesting that changing to a ten-district council would be a trip back to the future, so to speak. One wonders if, in another ten or twenty years, there will be yet another group vying for a return to the good old days of cumulative voting, or perhaps a strong-mayor form of government. It seems we’re never satisfied with whatever process is currently in place.

Below is the Paul Gordon’s full column from November 1987. Remember when you’re reading the following article that the “current system” of which he speaks is the system of five district seats and three at-large seats, with staggered terms.

Peoria City Council’s tumultuous history
Voting-rights lawsuit produces the system’s fourth change within 40 years

of the Journal Star

When the Peoria voting rights lawsuit was filed in federal court last January, it brought back bittersweet memories to Dorothy Sinclair.

She remembered a time 15 years earlier that was fraught with frustration, but ended in triumph. In what was her introduction to local politics, it was Sinclair who pushed hardest for the current system of electing members of the City Council — blending district and at-large seats. The change enabled her to win an at-large seat on the council three years later; a seat she still holds.

The voting rights suit threatened to take away the spoils of that victory, as the plaintiffs wanted at-large elections abolished and a return to electing council members from 10 wards — the very system Sinclair and the League of Women Voters pushed to change in 1972.

“Oh, sure, it made me think back to 1972. I felt very awkward about it. I didn’t say as much as I wanted to about my feelings about the hybrid system because I didn’t want to give the impression I was just defending my baby, or rather the League of Women Voters’ baby,” Sinclair said days after a settlement was reached in the voting rights lawsuit.

The settlement, which the council tentatively has approved, will allow the city to retain the hybrid system of electing council members. There still will be five members elected from districts. But beginning in 1991, the number of at-large seats will increase from three to five.

The at-large elections will have cumulative voting, which means voters will have five ballots to cast and they’ll be able to cast them however they want; voters could give all five votes to one candidate.

Sinclair, whose fourth term on the council ends in 1991, said she was satisfied with the settlement because the hybrid system will be retained.

“My only real objection has to do with the cumulative voting system,” she said. “I’m a little bit awed at how you explain to the voters how to use the cumulative system. It seems to me it’s going to be a nightmare.

“But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if this new system will be for the better.”

Electing councils

The change in the way Peorians elect their council members will be the fourth within the last 40 years. There were no changes, however, in the aldermanic form of government in Peoria from when it was established in 1845 to when council-manager government was adopted in 1953.

Before 1845, Peoria was governed under the township system, with a board of trustees and a board president.

In 1845, William Hale was elected the city’s first mayor and eight aldermen were elected from four wards. For many years thereafter, council elections were held annually.

The council grew with the city. In 1856, a fifth ward and two more council seats were added. A sixth ward followed just five years later, and a seventh ward was added in 1870.

The number of wards, or districts, continued growing steadily until reaching a high of 11 in 1951, when 22 aldermen were elected tot he council.

Through those years, many familiar names served as mayor and alderman, including Peter R. K. Brotherson, who was on the council many years and was mayor for four terms, and John Warner, who was mayor for 13 one-year terms.

Names like Cumerford, Allen, Bryan, Woodruff, Proctor and Kumpf fill council rosters.


In 1951, groups called Peorians for Council-Manager and Peoria Association of Commerce took advantage of a new state law that allowed any downstate city to change to a council-manager government. The groups succeeded through petitions in getting a special election, called on Jan. 22, 1952, asking voters whether the city should switch to the council-manager system.

Such a switch would strip the mayor of his administrative powers and provide for eight council members to be elected at-large.

Robert D. Morgan, now a retired U. S. District judge, was a member of both groups. He said recently the change was sought “because we wanted to get a little efficiency in city government.”

“At the time, there was $350,000 in unpaid bills that the city owed,” Morgan recalled. “That was a lot of money back then. There were problems with services. There were occasions when the fire engines couldn’t make it up Main Street hill because they were in such bad shape.

“There was a lot of talk about racketeering among local politicians. The idea behind local at-large elections was that the voters would get to vote for all the candidates. Under the ward system, there was talk of graft or corruption. Nobody went to jail, though.”

Peoria was a “wide-open town with a lot of gambling and prostitution; we wanted to clean that up,” Morgan said.

They got the chance as voters, despite opposition by the City Council that was seated at the time, overwhelmingly voted to adopt the council-manager form of government by a 15,872-7,095 vote.

The change went into effect in the spring of 1953 and Morgan was elected the first mayor under the new at-large system. That election also brought the first woman ever to the council–Myrna Harmes. George Bean became Peoria’s first city manager.

Morgan served on term as mayor, and it was a turbulent one.

In May 1954, during the new council’s campaign to rid the city of its image as a haven for gambling and prostitution, three sticks of dynamite exploded in a window well of Morgan’s Armstrong Avenue residence, heavily damaging the house. The FBI determined the dynamite came from a quarry in Juliet, Morgan said.

“We assumed it was a contract job,” Morgan said. “I think it was meant to try and scare me rather than to kill anybody.”

Did it scare him? “Well, we didn’t change any policies,” he said.

New challenges

The council-manager form of government was challenged in April 1959 by a group that wanted it abandoned. Voters, however, decided to retain that form of government by a 3-2 margin.

One of the things being sought in that referendum, Sinclair said, was a return to electing council members by wards.

That happened in 1960, when in a special election voters opted to return to the system of electing by wards. Ten wards were established, with one councilman elected from each; none of the terms were staggered.

“It was a compromise to head off a group that wanted to abolish council-manager form of government,” she said. The League of Women Voters supported retention of council-manager government.

But the LWV became disenchanted with the ward system. In 1969, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation allowing for changes in the way city councils were elected. Those changes included the hybrid system currently in use.

And in 1970, the new state constitution established Home Rule, meaning cities could change methods of electing representatives to just about anything.

The LWV began gearing up to try and force a change they believed would make the City Council more representative for all Peorians.

“Home Rule was so new, the League didn’t want to get involved in a test case. So we stuck to the changes allowed in the 1969 legislation,” Sinclair said.

Ironically, one of those changes would allow for 10 council members — five to be elected from wards, the others at-large. “But they all had to be elected at once, and one of the things we wanted was staggered terms,” she said.

The LWV sent out questionnaires and they showed the public seemed to support the hybrid system. Letters were sent to cities with populations between 75,000 and 200,000 to determine how they elected council members and to get figures on minority voting and representation.

“There was a growing feeling in the country that the ward system allowed minorities a better chance to be elected,” Sinclair said.

“But from the responses we got from the other cities, there didn’t seem to be any advantages to minorities by using the ward system. So we didn’t feel we were handicapping minorities by asking for the hybrid system.”

Why that system

Sinclair said the current system was selected for an assortment of reasons.

“We retained the districts so voters still felt they had their man in City Hall,” she said. “We enlarged the districts so the person elected would have a broader outlook.”

“The at-large members then would be available to the city as a whole, to look at issues that crossed district lines. And it would allow the people, by voting for their district councilman, the three at-large members and the mayor, to elect over half of the council.”

The LWV, she added, wanted staggered terms so there would be continuity on each council and it wanted non-partisan council elections “because issues in city government had virtually nothing to do with party platforms and we felt some good people would be more willing to run without a party label.”

Frustrations begin

The league’s petitions were gathered and given to the City Council in May 1971. That began months of frustration for Sinclair, who at the time was chairman of the league’s committee on city government.

The City Council did nothing with the petitions until then-city attorney Paul Knapp said the council didn’t have the authority to certify the petitions, an action that had to be taken before the referendum could be put on the ballot.

Sinclair and the LWV went to court and on Dec. 22, 1971, Judge Albert Pucci ordered the city election commission to put the question on the April 4, 1971 ballot.

Council members still tried to block it by refusing to allow then-City Clerk William Kumpf to release the LWV’s petitions to the election commission. Council members believed the referendum should be held in November 1972, instead of April, because there would be a larger voter turnout.

The City Council then approved a resolution setting the referendum for Nov. 7, 1972.

However, the April 4 election was held and the voters opted for the new hybrid system by a margin of 7,876-7,194.

The City Council believed those results were invalid because it had the authority, not a judge, to set the election date. It decided to proceed with the Nov. 7 referendum on the same question.

In October 1972, Judge Charles Wilson ruled [that the] April 4 election was valid and issued an injunction to stop the Nov. 7 referendum. When the city appealed, however, the second referendum was conducted even though it was unknown if the results would count.

On Nov. 7, 1972, the voters laid to rest the controversy when they again voted 25,259-17,086 to change to the hybrid system that exists today.


4 comments to Rewind: History of City Council election process

  • Five council seats/five at-large to 10 district seats. It’s a small step in the right direction. But the REAL solution is — you guessed it — is a strong mayor form of government. This City Manager form of government creates to much distance between those performing the tasks of government and those elected to make sure those tasks are carried out. Make the mayor directly responsible for the running of day-to-day government, responsible for ALL hiring and firing, and then let the voters hold the mayor accountable.

  • Peo Proud

    I’ll agree with your first point — 10 districts with no cumulative voting is good. While District positions are also good for cross-district issues and to prevent “fiefdoms” — a strong mayor system would be a disaster. NOTHING but politics and political shenanigans will ensue. That would be a huge step in the wrong direction. A professional administrator provides a much better approach to administration. I can think of less than a handful of strong mayor systems that have worked well and dozens where it has resulted in less effective government.

  • Interesting theories on both sides, to be sure, but the proof is in the pudding. I would prefer a mayoral system as long as the hands that guide the mayor aren’t firmly rooted in the Diocese. Time to break up the Spaulding alumi association and elect a mayor who is not in the pocket of OSF.

  • spikeless

    It’s S-p-a-l-d-i-n-g